May 29, 2008
Los Angeles Israeli Film Festival put focus on social justice—and secrets
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The film follows the budding friendship of two religious girls: Naomi (Ania Bukstein), a studious and supercilious daughter of a prominent rabbi in Bnei Brak, and Michelle (Michal Shtamler), a rebellious free spirit from France. The two both attend an iconoclastic women’s school in the mystical religious city of Safed, where “someone is always weirder than you,” as one of students at the school remarks. (It’s a phrase that’s also true of Jerusalem, an equally religious, but much less mystical city that attracts searchers.)
On their charity rounds, the girls meet a mysterious sickly foreigner, Anouk (Fanny Ardant), and decide to cure her of her past transgressions and present illness with secret tikunim (kabbalistic remedies) they must hide from the school, which is in a precarious situation within the male-dominated religious culture.
But the tikunim are not the only secrets from the eponymous title. There is the “secret” of the school’s headmistress (she hopes there will one day be a female rabbi), Anouk’s secret past (she was in prison for a crime she might or might not have committed) and, most centrally, Naomi and Michelle’s secret budding relationship.
Just how that relationship is categorized is up for debate. Late one night, the two engage in a furious mutual back massage, and later in the movie they share a deep kiss on the lips. Some might call this budding lesbianism, but “I don’t see it as that at all,” Nesher said. “They’re in an environment with no men—and they discover the whole idea of passion. They’ve never been exposed to it.”
Is this some male fantasy imaginings of what goes on behind closed (yeshiva) doors?
“When I make movies I rarely do anything from imagination,” Nesher said, noting that “almost everything in the movie happens to someone I spoke to.”
He and co-writer Hadar Galron (playwright of “Pulsa,” a popular and controversial one-woman comedy about religious women’s rights) interviewed some 50 to 60 yeshiva girls and uncovered many of the threads and “secrets” that ultimately appear in the movie: It wasn’t only the passions of young girls; in interviews and research they found that most of the yeshivas were run by daughters of powerful ultra-Orthodox fathers. Nesher sees Naomi’s father, Rabbi Hess (Sefi Rivlin), as the “tragic figure” in the film.
“They understand their daughters are brilliant, they understand the injustice, they understand the daughters can reach intellectual depth but there’s nothing they can do about it,” Nesher said.
In Israel, though, there are some women who want to change that injustice.
“The pressure is mounting to give women more power within that universe,” he said.
“The Secrets” is one of a number of recent films and TV series to focus on religious themes, such as films “Campfire” and “Ushpizin” and the TV series, “Catching the Sky.”
“It’s more and more apparent in Israel that religious people are not that different from secular people, and vice versa,” Nesher said.